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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Use of Force in Jails in NY City

March 1, 2006
New York Deal Restricts Force by Jail Guards

New York City officials said yesterday that they had agreed to broad new measures to control the use of force by guards against inmates in city jails, including the use of blows to the head.

The settlement with 22 inmates caps two decades of grinding legal battles; it is the first time reform measures — already in place in some correction facilities — will be applied citywide to reduce violence behind bars.

Settling a 2002 lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society, the city agreed to revise its guidelines on when and how guards may use force, post hundreds of new video cameras in the jails, overhaul its procedures for investigating violent episodes and provide more training for guards in how to restrain inmates.

The city will also pay a total of $2.2 million to 22 inmates who were injured in clashes with guards. Inmates in the suit had suffered shattered cheekbones, ruptured eyeballs and split eardrums after officers threw punches at their heads instead of using less damaging control methods.

The settlement, reached on Feb. 17 and placed into the court record late last week, presents a twist on the usual use of video cameras for security: They will be in place to watch the guards as well as the inmates.

City jails include the large Rikers Island complex, a jail barge off Hunts Point in the Bronx, the Bernard B. Kerik Complex in Manhattan and the prison wards at Bellevue and Elmhurst hospitals. There are about 13,750 inmates in the city system on an average day. The jails that have already adopted similar reforms include two units at Rikers Island — the Central Punitive Segregation Unit and the Eric M. Taylor Center — and the two hospital wards.

While the city had responded to a series of earlier suits — the first one dates back to 1983 — with reforms in a few detention centers, this time correction officials agreed to make the changes across all 11 jails in the system. The settlement will accelerate across New York the application of practices, like video monitoring and self-defense tactics for guards that do not involve using fists, that have long been standard in other big-city correction systems around the nation.

City officials hailed the settlement as a legal victory and a harbinger of their new, more aggressive approach to legal challenges that try to force change through the courts. The city did not admit that there was any pattern of abuse in the jails, as Legal Aid had claimed that there was. The suit is expected to be closed this month with no court-appointed monitor or any other continuing role for the court.

The settlement "preserves the good name of the City of New York," said Martin F. Horn, the city's correction commissioner, because "there is no finding that confirms the most damning and critical allegation of a pattern of brutality." He said many of the mandated reforms were already under way and others had been on his agenda to carry out regardless of the suit's outcome.

Lawyers for the inmates said they had agreed to settle the suit rather than endure a grueling trial against city officials, who appeared recalcitrant. The 34-page settlement, the inmates' lawyers said, allowed reforms they had sought for years to be put in place faster. The agreement gives the city strict timetables for carrying out the new measures, and it gives Legal Aid more access to the jails and to information about violent encounters so it can verify that the agreement is being honored.

In four years of litigation, some 350,000 pages of documents piled up in the chambers of the presiding judge, Denny Chin of Federal District Court in Manhattan. The secret settlement negotiations alone lasted one year.

The details of the financial settlements with the individual inmates remained confidential for their protection, lawyers for both sides said, since some are still incarcerated.

One plaintiff, Shawn Davis, 38, lost the sight in his left eye when a guard on Rikers Island kicked him in the face after a melee. Another, Charles Paige, a practicing Muslim who is 47, suffered a fractured cheekbone from a face blow (called a head shot in prison parlance) after confronting Rikers guards who, he said, had mishandled his Koran and stepped on his prayer rug.

The settlement sets specific revisions to the guidelines for use of force by guards. The new guidelines say, with more clarity than earlier versions, that it is "expressly prohibited" to use more force than is necessary to restrain an inmate. They say explicitly that blows, including blows to the head, "should not be struck" if other tactics, like control holds or pushes, would work to subdue an inmate.

"It's not inappropriate to use force, it's inappropriate to use force inappropriately," Mr. Horn said, summarizing the guidelines' message for correction officers. Guards will get extra training on techniques to restrain inmates that are less potentially harmful.

Hundreds of additional video cameras will be mounted in locations agreed upon with Legal Aid. The exact places and numbers remain confidential, so neither guards nor inmates will be aware of them. Mr. Horn supports using cameras in jails; about 2,000 of them are already in place. But the suit pointed out that many of the cameras were faulty. The settlement details how Legal Aid will be told about the duration and results of the recordings. It also requires guards to use hand-held video cameras to record cell searches.

The Correction Department will revamp the manual, procedures and training of its internal investigations unit, acknowledging that the unit had fallen behind the times. The city will hire an outside consultant to recommend changes, and will provide a new 40-hour training program for investigators. The suit had charged that officers were not disciplined after injuring inmates because many investigations made cursory reviews or were biased against prisoners.

If the city complies, the agreement "is likely to yield significant changes that will improve the security of the prisoners," said Jonathan Chasan, a veteran Legal Aid lawyer. He pointed to a steep decline in violent encounters in a dangerous center, the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, following a 1998 court order stemming from an earlier Legal Aid case.

"Where we brought suit and were successful, there was an enormous reduction in the violence perpetrated on our clients," said John Boston, the director of the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project. But he said city officials "didn't get the hint" — until now — that the reforms should be extended to the whole system. Legal Aid was assisted in the case by two private firms, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady and Sullivan & Cromwell.

Mr. Horn argued that conditions over all in New York's jails have improved sharply in recent years, even without the lawsuit. In 2005, incidents of force where inmates were injured by guards dropped to 72, from 459 in 1997, according to correction figures.

Judge Chin will hold a final hearing on March 31 to approve the settlement. If the city does not meet its terms, Legal Aid lawyers cannot return to a federal judge, but they can file for breach of contract in state court.

The settlement expires on Nov. 1, 2009, near the end of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's current term. Gail Donoghue, a senior counsel for the city, said that New York would not be locked in excruciating legal battling "for the next 20 years."

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company